Most people think that there is a limit to the overall annual number of immigrants admitted to the United States and to how many may come from each country. In fact, this is not true. Some kinds of immigration are limited, but not all; some kinds of immigration are exempt from any limits. Because some classes of immigration are unlimited, the overall number of immigrants admitted annually is also unlimited, as can be seen in the rising numbers of immigrants.
The “Capped” Categories
Two admission categories, family-based immigrants (who are sponsored by relatives who previously immigrated) and employment-based immigrants (who are sponsored by an employer), are subject to two caps. The category cap sets the maximum number of annual admissions in those categories at 366,000 (226,000 for the family-sponsored and 140,000 for the employment-sponsored). The country cap puts a limit on how many immigrants in those categories can be from any one country. Any one country can receive no more than seven percent of the total admissions in the capped categories (that comes to 25,620). Most countries do not come near the seven percent figure. Usually, only the top two or three immigrant-sending countries reach their maximum.
The “Preferences” Within the Capped Categories
The different kinds of applicants in the capped categories are grouped into what are called preferences. What preference an applicant for admission is grouped in depends on what their basis for admission is.1 The family-sponsored immigrants have one set of preferences; the employment-sponsored have another. Each set of preferences has its own system of prioritization.2 Admissions are given to the applicants in the highest preference first; once the limit for that preference is reached, admissions are distributed to applicants in the second preference, and so on. Occasionally, people from a particular country will get so many of these visas that the country cap kicks in. After that, additional people from that country do not receive immigrant visas for that year and must go on a waiting list. The following year, the process starts over.
Other Categories with Maximum Limits
There are a few other categories of immigrant admissions that have maximum limits. For example, diversity visas-a “visa lottery” for immigrants from countries that have not been sending a large share of immigrants to the United States recently-are limited to 55,000 admissions a year. Also, the admission of refugees has an annual limit that is decided upon every year jointly by Congress and the President (in recent years, it has been around 70,000 to 90,000). Admissions in these categories operate separately from the category cap and the country cap mentioned above and are not affected by them.
The Category with No Limit
The immediate relatives (spouse, parents, and children) of naturalized immigrants and U.S. natives are admitted as immigrants without limit. For example, in 2001, there were 1,064,318 new immigrant admissions. Of those, 42 percent were in this unlimited category (443,964).3 Because of this category, the number of people who can immigrate to the United States has no legal limit.
As the number of immigrants in the United States grows, the number of applicants eligible for this category rises. In 1968, there were 43,677 admissions in this category; in 2001, there were 443,964 (more than ten times as many).
It is not necessary to cap this category in order to lower immigration. The only reason so many people are eligible for this category is that so many of their relatives precede them. If the limits on the other categories were lowered (and if certain categories, such as that for adult brothers and sisters, were eliminated), the number of people admitted as immediate relatives would start to fall off naturally. Many immigration experts, including the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, have suggested this sensible plan as a way of helping to restore control and integrity to our immigration system. So far, Congress has failed to act.
Footnotes and endnotes
 For example, someone who is the brother of a U.S. citizen would be in a different preference than one who is a former Soviet nuclear scientist.
 For example, the unmarried adult children of alien residents have a higher preference than the siblings of U.S. citizens.
 The immigrants exempt from limitation include the spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens, adjustments of status for refugee and asylees who entered in previous years, and children born abroad to legal permanent residents.